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Strained Affairs: Belarus Ambassador Valery V. Tsepkalo
The Washington Diplomat / September 2000

By Larry Luxner

Valery V. Tsepkalo always wanted to be a diplomat, and at 35, he's one of the youngest ambassadors in Washington.

He's also one of the few whose current leadership is not recognized by the United States.

"Politically, our relations with the U.S. aren't very good," Tsepkalo said bluntly during a recent interview. "The U.S. government did not recognize the results of the 1996 referendum to the constitution. As far as we can see, they rely only on one source of information: assessments made by the opposition."

The end result, Tsepkalo says, is that "we do not have meetings at the highest levels with U.S. officials."

Much of this ill will clearly has to do with Belorusian leader -- some call him dictator -- Aleksandr Lukashenko, who in 1996 manipulated a Fujimori-style constitutional referendum to expand his presidential powers and then dissolved the elected parliament. This was followed later in the year by a referendum in which he secured a mandate to stay in office until 2001, even though an election was scheduled for 1999.

Opposition groups and a significant part of the international community argued that the second referendum was unfair and violated the constitution and, therefore, that Lukashenko's legal term in office as president should have ended on July 20, 1999.

Amnesty International, in its 2000 annual report on human-rights conditions in Belarus, said that protest activity by the relatively weak, fragmented opposition has been "met by increasingly harsh measures" by the Lukashenko regime.

"Prominent figures in the opposition who spoke out against Lukashenko have been imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," says AI. "There were several reports of possible disappearances of leading opposition figures. Political opponents of the president and human rights defenders were subjected to harassment and intimidation. The death penalty continues to be imposed on a frequent basis."

Lukashenko first infuriated the United States in 1998, when his government forced foreign diplomats to vacate their residences in the Drozdy neighborhood of Minsk, on the pretext that utility repairs were necessary. Two months of diplomatic wrangling ensued, during which time the State Department complained that Lukashenko's actions clearly violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations -- not to mention valid leases signed between the Belarusian government and more than a dozen foreign missions.

"Other deplorable events, like an attempt to weld shut a gate to the U.S. ambassador's residence, blocking of vehicular access to the compound and intrusions of the territories of the residences," according to a State Department briefing, finally led to the departure of U.S. Ambassador Daniel Speckhard from Belarus on June 22, 1998, as well as "subsequent retaliatory measures."

One of those measures was the expulsion of Tsepkalo from the United States. It took 15 months to resolve the Drozdy dispute, and finally in September 1999, Tsepkalo was allowed to return to the Belarusian Embassy on New Hampshire Avenue, situated between Pacific House and the Embassy of Nicaragua.

Despite the strained atmosphere, Tsepkalo says "we are trying to convince the U.S. that good relations with Belarus should not be just a matter for Belarus. It's in the interests of the United States too."

Perhaps nobody is better suited to that hard-sell job than Tsepkalo himself. Born and raised in Grodno, the fourth-largest city in Belarus, Tsepkalo studied at the Belarusian Technological Institute in Minsk from 1982 to 1984, and at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations from 1986 to 1991.

"When I was still a schoolboy, I decided to become a diplomat," he said. "But you needed recommendations from the Communist Party, and I couldn't get that."

Even so, Tsepkalo managed to snare his first overseas assignment -- a six-month stint at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki -- just as the USSR was beginning to fall apart. That's also where he learned his first foreign language, Finnish (the ambassador also speaks Russian, English and Polish, and understands Serbo-Croatian).

Belarus declared independence Aug. 25, 1991, and became an independent state four months later, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, an event which was precipitated by a disintegration document signed in Minsk.

Shortly after, Tsepkalo went to work for the newly established Belarusian Foreign Ministry, and in1994, he became an adviser to the executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is headquartered in Minsk. That same year, at age 29, he was appointed the country's first deputy minister of foreign affairs.

Throughout his brief career, Tsepkalo has written over 40 articles on international security, foreign policy and economics, as well as books on Russian and European nationalism, and has lectured widely on the problems of geopolitics and modern international relations. In 1994, he found time to write a book, "By the Road of the Dragon," about the emerging tigers of Southeast Asia -- an economic model Tsepkalo wishes his landlocked, resource-poor country could copy.

To be sure, the intricate problems of Belarus -- also known throughout history as Byelorussia or White Russia -- go back a long way, predating even the Soviet era.

Tsepkalo notes with pride that in 1516, his people ratified mainland Europe's first constitution. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was in fact a Belarusian province. But Belarus, along with Ukraine, was always ethnically and religiously close to Russia, and in fact throughout most of modern history was part of Russia when Poland wasn't occupying it. Belarus became part of the USSR in 1922.

An estimated 80 percent of Belarusians are members of the Russian Orthodox Church, with Catholics comprising most of remainder. Until the last century, Belarus also had a sizeable Jewish minority, but the eruption of violent anti-Semitic pogroms between 1890 and the 1920s led to the departure of hundreds of thousands of Belorusian Jews -- some of whom would later become famous in the United States and Israel. Among them: composer Irving Berlin, actor Kirk Douglas, painter Marc Chagall and politicians Golda Meir and Shimon Peres.

Most of the Jews who remained in Belarus by the onset of World War II eventually died in Nazi concentration camps, along with many non-Jews.

"We lost about 30 percent of our population. Every family lost somebody," Tsepkalo says. "We also had a strong partisan movement against Germany, so we suffered the most. That was why the U.N. decided to give Belarus [along with Ukraine] its own vote in the General Assembly."

Belarus didn't recover its prewar population of 10 million until 1982; since then its population has risen only slightly, to 10.5 million. It is still suffering the economic and human costs of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which, although it took place in neighboring Ukraine, had a devastating effect on the Belarusian economy.

Given the country's natural affinity with Russia -- for example, 80 percent of Belarusians are members of the Russian Orthodox Church -- it's no surprise that Minsk almost always sided with Moscow during the Cold War.

"In the big cities, people prefer to speak Russian rather than Belarusian, though Belarusian is still used in literature and in rural areas," he says. "We feel that the history of Russia is somehow the history of Belarus also. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians don't feel that way."

On the issue of Chechnya, Tsepkalo clearly comes down on the side of Mother Russia.

"I think it'll be a long fight, but I'm also convinced that Russia has no choice but to fight," he says. "Chechens are very good soldiers, and they are fanatics. If the Russians allow one piece to break away, they will disintegrate. Russia could lose 60 percent or more of its territory. It could be very bloody."

That comraderie doesn't mean, however, that Russia and Belarus always agree. In fact, Tsepkalo makes no attempt to hide his bitterness at Russia's attitude towards his country since the two neighbors signed a pact in April 1996 linking their political and economic systems.

"Russia, as the only possible core of integration, behaves as if it does not need integration very much -- or at all," he wrote in a lengthy article in the March 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. "It competes childishly with other republics in signing bilateral political and economic agreements, boasting that it signed, say, an agreement with NATO or the IMF before Ukraine or Uzbekistan. Russia even sometimes deprecates those countries and peoples that gravitate most toward it, such as Belarus. Talk of integration has remained mostly talk. The CIS, for its part, does little beyond bringing leaders from 12 of the former republics together to talk. Of the more than 700 agreements reached within the CIS framework, none seems to work."

In an incredibly blunt statement for a diplomat, Tsepkalo told us that while the CIS is "an important forum" for leaders of the former Soviet republics to get together, "we do not have a strong tradition of respecting the law or honoring international agreements."

Or a strong tradition of democracy, admits the ambassador.

"Under the American definition of democracy, we have a long way to go," says Tsepkalo. "But it's not fair to say we are not a democracy. We of course are not any less democratic than Russia or Ukraine."

Nevertheless, Tsepkalo says "we are not talking about reunification with Russia at any level. The only thing we're discussing is to create a kind of union like the European Union. I was the first one sent to Russia to negotiate this. I would say that despite all the treaties we've signed, we are still quite far from it."

Belarus, with a per-capita income of around $2,500, is extremely dependent on Russia economically. More than 95 percent of its oil and gas comes from Russia, and it exports more to Russia -- $4 billion worth of goods last year -- than does Ukraine, with five times the population of Belarus.

"We export tractors, buses, heavy-duty trucks and microchips. About 70 percent of the microchips for watches come from Belarus," Tsepkalo says proudly. "We have a very skilled workforce. During Soviet times, we had the best mathematicians. Now we're on the road to supplying software for the Internet."

He adds: "We did have nuclear weapons, but all have since been withdrawn. We also produce navigational systems for long-range missiles. This is a legacy we have from the Soviet Union. It was all according to their strategic planning."

Trade with the United States is much less important -- about $220 million last year -- and is limited to exports of mining equipment. This month, state company Belaz -- the third-largest mining transport maker in the world after Caterpillar and Komatsu -- will exhibit its 120-ton-capacity trucks at a Las Vegas trade show for the first time, says the ambassador, who is eager to show visitors an array of slick color catalogs from Belaz, the Ministry of Transport and other official entities.

Despite the low level of bilateral trade, U.S. companies hope to crack the Belarusian market, especially now that technology transfer is no longer an issue. Manufacturers such as Navistar International and Detroit Diesel have joint ventures up and running in Belarus, and since 1996, McDonald's has been putting up its Golden Arches all around metropolitan Minsk -- surely a familiar sight to the 4,000 or so Americans who visited Belarus last year.

Yet U.S. political relations with Belarus are unlikely to improve as long as Lukashenko remains in office.

Earlier this year, the authoritarian leader again came under heavy U.S. criticism following the visit of four opposition leaders to Washington, where they met with State Department and National Security Council officials. Upon their return to Belarus, Lukashenko threatened to treat the four politicians as "possible security threats."

In a June 9 statement to reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States "regards with great seriousness the safety and liberty of these individuals," adding that "the resolution of the political and constitutional crisis in Belarus requires open dialogue between the opposition and the authorities -- something that cannot occur in a climate of fear."

Asked about political prisoners and about Lukashenko's widely reported crackdown against opposition newspapers, Tsepkalo defended his leader and his controversial policies. "It's a general perception that Belarus has serious problems with independent media. But that's not true," he said. "We have 1,160 newspapers and magazines, of which 330 belong to the government and local authorities. The rest are entirely independent."

The ambassador concludes with fighting words, vowing that despite Washington's concerns, "we will overcome our difficulties, with or without foreign assistance. We are convinced that one day we will join the European community of nations as its equal part."

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